‘Africa is her conception of life, her philosophy, her stories’ — A review of Borom Sarret (The Wagoner) by Ousmane Sembène

Opening credits of the Borom Sarret

Ousmane Sembène was an incredibly talented, pioneering novelist and filmmaker from Senegal, who is critically acclaimed as the father of African cinema. Sembène, in an interview on French television, fantastically put forward his view that ‘Africa is not only about animals, trees and men. Africa is her conception of life, her philosophy, her stories’. This gives you an idea of the kind of Eurocentric prejudices Sembène was attempting to tackle with his novelist works. However, given the astronomically high levels of illiteracy in parts of Africa during the early 1960s, Sembène realised the difficulty in trying to convey his message to the masses.

‘Touring Africa, talking to people. I noticed the power of cinema in Africa. That’s what brought me to filmmaking’. Sembène discovered a means to communicate with his people through the moving image which was far more effective than literal text. Given that French colonialists had initially banned the Senegalese from creating film of any kind, independence brought with it a sense of liberation. Sembène believed ‘by making films, we have the opportunity to see ourselves through our own mirror, for the first time, made by ourselves’.

The cart-driver prays before beginning his job as a Wagoner

Borom Sarret (The Wagoner) was Sembène’s first film, and the first ever Sub-Saharan African film made by an African, in Africa, for Africans. As such, I thought it would be fitting if this was the first of his glittering portfolio that I’d review in an attempt to showcase his works to a wider audience.

Borom Sarret is a 20-minute short film released in 1963 that follows the day in the life of a cart driver working in the busy streets of Dakar, Senegal. Throughout the day, the driver, who remains nameless, encounters differing characters who each have their own problems. It appears these struggles are representative of wider societal and economic issues that continue to plague Africa post-independence. Intertwined in this storyline, we gain a glimpse into the monotony of the protagonist’s lifestyle as he picks up passengers throughout the day, in the hope of making enough money to feed his family.

The cart driver receiving blessing from his wife before he departs to begin his days work. In doing so, she reminds him that ‘remember, we have nothing to eat’.

Sembène sought to examine Africa through the lens of an African. This would allow the authenticity of African life to be portrayed for the first time in cinema. Manthia Diawara, a Malian filmmaker, scholar and writer, mentions that ‘we saw Africans that look our fathers, women that look like our mothers’. This in itself is undoubtedly inspiring to many who were for so long conditioned that they were mentally incapable of such by the French. Sembène then had the means to tell his story, Africa’s story. It became clearer to me, as I watched the film, how important it was to Sembène to have Africans believe in their own creative abilities.

As Borom Sarret is narrated from the cart driver’s point of view, the audience is able to identify with his story. More importantly, Africans see a person like them given a platform for expression. Sembène, whilst working as a dockworker in Marseille, referred to Africa as ‘moribund’ and absent, given that most were labourers and commoners during the French colonial rule. Borom Sarret sought to change this mentality, to destroy it and breathe new life into Africa, and it does so excellently.

The cart driver takes a heavily pregnant women to the hospital, showing no emotion throughout.

Symbolic importance, through the use of simplistic plots, appeared to be the mode of direction for Sembène in Borom Sarret. Africa’s woes of class, poverty, attitudes towards the disabled and infant mortality are all wonderfully examined in this short 20-minute film that forces viewer critique of society. The cart driver presents the audience with a character who works not knowing whether he will return home with enough money to put food on the table. It is such that enforces the idea of uncertainty, a reality many face on a daily basis. Here Sembène also tremendously attacks post-independence euphoria that existed in Africa, conveying that independence has not solved societal issues that many dreamed of whilst under oppressive colonial rule.

All of this was done using a very low budget, in which his actors were people from the street and his professional crew were formulated of family members. This is to be commended as it demonstrates how dedicated Sembène was to providing a creative and representational voice for Africans.

The cart driver, with passengers going about a day’s work in the streets of Dakar

At some points, it appeared as if the cart driver had become numb to society’s ills. For instance, in response to seeing a disabled beggar, the cart driver refers to beggars as flies, suggesting the prevalence of beggars is high. I also couldn’t help but think of the negative attitudes towards disability that exists in parts of Africa. Perhaps Sembène is attempting to demonstrate how easy it is to lose the right to exist, if you are somehow maimed resulting in your inability to work. Although dialogue throughout the film is rather sparse, arguably the moving image was more effective in conveying this particular societal issue to the audience. Not only do we learn of the prevalence of poverty but this scene also encourages conversation allowing such topics to become part of public discourse. Sembène fantastically deploys Borom Sarret to ‘explore our common problems, the problems of developing countries’.

In order to overcome societal failings, we must first be able to discuss them. Again, Sembène used film as a medium to raise the consciousness of his people by creating means of discussion. By doing such, being a Senegalese man, ‘Sembène was going against 100 years of stereotypes. It is [an] incredible revolution!’ — Manthia Diawara.

A disabled beggar asks the cart driver for money. ‘Have pity on me’, he says.

Borom Sarret is a simple but excellent short film that explores economic, political and social issues in Africa post-independence. In particular, it also, through the eyes of the cart driver, casts light onto the oppressed. Borom Sarret was the means by which Ousmane Sembène debuted in cinema, and he does so in brilliant fashion by exploring fundamental questions.

He also provided an avenue for Africans to believe they can succeed by telling their own story without the need to adhere to Eurocentric beliefs and values. Samba Gadjigo, Sembène’s biographer, denotes that upon discovering his works ‘I did not want to be French anymore. I wanted to be African’. To me, this encompasses the importance of Sembène as a filmmaker. This is a man who should be celebrated, it is a great shame that there are few who are aware of his existence.

Film writer, producer and writer Ousmane Sembène
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